BY BLAKE BUSH
The blinding stage lights shine on the boy in a dress twirling to music blaring behind him. Silhouettes of the audience screaming love at the queen and holding dollar bills out. He snatches up the attention. His lips follow the lyrics effortlessly as his body flops to the floor. Roaring applause, and the lights dim. His number is finished, and he returns to the dressing room, counting his dwindling tips.
Jonathan Cleveland-Hindman, a 25-year-old queen known as Jexa Ren’ae Van de Kamp, took the stage once again after The Wreckroom drag club reopened its doors to the public in July. The Wreckroom was Oklahoma City’s premiere drag club for LGBT youth, and was previously closed for financial reasons.
“Drag is all about expressing myself,” said Cleveland-Hindman, host and performer at The Wreckroom. “It was a way of escaping reality, and just stepping into a different life for a second.”
At 14 years old, Cleveland-Hindman began his drag career after stepping into the spotlight one amateur night. That one performance turned into 11 years on stage and counting. Under the wig, he was able to control the frustrations from his life. His frustrations stemmed from his adolescence, where he was evicted from multiple houses and was in relationships he said were toxic.
He used to work the days away trying to afford a decent living. He paid for his share of electric, water and rent through his previous boyfriend. He and his previous boyfriend were eventually evicted from overdue rent and unpaid bills, forcing them to live with relatives.
“I didn’t have the greatest life growing up, like my ‘boy life’ wasn’t that great,” said Cleveland-Hindman. “Drag was the only thing I could control. I threw my emotions at everyone on stage—somewhere I could control.”
He blossomed into his drag personality throughout the years performing at The Wreckroom. He built lifelong friendships, built a foundation with his father and built connections with those around him that pushed him into his drag career.
“We are all connected by The Wreckroom. It gave us experience. It gave me experience,” said Hunter Foster, creative media production senior and drag performer. “We are all family because when you are in a changing room, and you see a man in pantyhose, you automatically have a deep connection with them.”
Through drag, Cleveland-Hindman was empowered to push through his personal obstacles. He wants to keep The Wreckroom open for a long time so other people can make lifelong memories like he has.
“The Wreckroom was my life and it made me into the person I am today,” said Cleveland-Hindman. “This is a place that needs to stick around for the LGBT youth so they can feel accepted and be true to who they are without fear or fear of rejection.”
He noted that, at a young age, he was reserved in sharing his sexuality or passion for drag because of the social implications of growing up in a small town in Oklahoma.
“It can be difficult for kids who are part of the LGBT community to feel accepted,” said Dusty Hawkins, visual communications junior and social activist. “It’s getting better, but we still have a long way to go.”
The locked doors of The Wreckroom during its closure was heartbreaking to Cleveland-Hindman and many other performers that started their careers there. He said that the acceptance and tolerance around the country was causing issues with funding places like The Wreckroom. He believed that the increased tolerance toward LGBT youth today was negatively affecting The Wreckroom because the LGBT youth could be more public about their sexualities.
“Whenever it closed, a piece of me had died,” said Cleveland-Hindman. “I had so many memories there. I was crowned there. My mother came there, and my dad came to support me and that changed my entire life.”
Cleveland-Hindman grew up in an actively religious family and struggled with his father about sexuality and gender identity. In 2015, his parents came to support him in one of his performances.
“I felt like everything I was fighting for in my entire life was to get his approval. It validated me in a sense,” said Cleveland-Hindman. “That’s what I want. I want the environment there to be as accepting as that—a place where you can come however you are, and however you want to be.”
Throughout the two-year hiatus, Cleveland-Hindman had difficulty separating the line between his reality and his fantasy. Every dollar he made was spent on drag, including makeup, outfits, accessories and wigs. He revolved his entire life around his drag personality, and believed that he was losing himself in the midst of his art.
“It’s easy to forget who you are. I am Jonathan 95 percent of the time and Jexa 5 percent of the time,” said Cleveland-Hindman. “The face you wear everyday should be the one you love versus the one that you create for yourself.”
Originally drag was a solace, and the club was a place for safety from the social implications of his sexuality and his extensive collection of makeup brushes, but as he grew, he developed a knack for empowering other queens through his style and actions.
“I admire them [the queens] because not only are they out, but they’re proud of who they are. I wanted that,” said Cleveland-Hindman. “Once I started ripping apart the layers of who they were as people, I realized they were severely flawed, and that didn’t fit me. So, I try to be a role-model for other queens.”
Cleveland-Hindman continues to host and perform at The Wreckroom, and is working on his side project Haus Down Productions. He dedicated his project to sharing the drag world with people around Norman, and to perform for charitable causes. He has raised funds for organizations, such as Planned Parenthood, and his group has performed in the Norman Art Walks and other art-related businesses.
“Norman doesn’t really have a place for the LGBT community outside of campus, so things like The Wreckroom and Haus Down Productions are experiences LGBT youth can have without having to be 21,” said Foster.